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Modern Classic 

Jardinière

Wednesday, Oct 18 2000
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In its own fluidly cosmopolitan way, Jardinière compiles and reinterprets what might be called culinary San Francisco's greatest hits. The restaurant is housed in an elegantly refurbished old brick build- ing not unlike the abodes of mc2, Globe, and other Jackson Square trendezvous. The surrounding neighbor-hood in this case, though, is Hayes Valley, an au courant sort of place abrim with the likes of Absinthe and the Hayes Street Grill.

Impressively, Jardinière combines Shanghai 1930's exclusive-speak-easy feel with LuLu's convivial plenitude. Its interior is eclectic enough to offer two distinct dining experiences, depending on whether you sit amongst the elegant shadows and deco fixtures downstairs (shades of the Fifth Floor) or upstairs in all its low-ceilinged, eclectic iconography (Flying Saucer, anyone?). There are voluptuous design accents reminiscent of Farallon and the Cypress Club, with an overall and underlying wit and poshness usually only encountered within the downtown splendor of Postrio and Le Colonial. Most important, the dishes that emerge from the kitchen are as creative and as impeccably executed as the food at Aqua, Eos, and Hawthorne Lane.

What it all adds up to is a dazzling destination that for three successful years has been satisfying San Francisco's most gustatorially exacting needs. The clientele is as varied (in a beautiful-people sort of way) as the décor. There's one couple on a tentative first date over in the corner, another yielding to the throes of passion at the bar, a big group of happy celebrants near the kitchen, a few expense-account businessmen scattered here and there, along with several glamistas in post-performance attendance (we're two blocks from Opera Plaza) and the occasional well-heeled tourist. The low ceilings offer one and all a nice, clubby hideaway atmosphere, while the dignified Old New Orleans exterior belies Pat Kuleto's sinuous inner design: a sparkling glacier of a cen- tral bar surmounted by a circular staircase leading up to the circular mezzanine and its prized perch seats overlooking the whole. At this remove you can survey the surrounding landscape with ease: the domed, star-flecked ceiling; the Gershwin-inclined pianist and his backdrop, a Dali-esque wall hanging in trumpets and saxophones; the celestial-industrial moderne accents that range from the mezzanine's limpid golden banisters to the huge martini glass-shaped ice receptacle set into the ellipsoid bar.

The food lives up to its setting, even when founding chef Traci Des Jardins is more earnestly occupied with her newborn baby, as is the case at this writing. Des Jardins' cosmopolitan dishes reflect her San Joaquin Valley upbringing and its myriad of influences: Cajun, Mexican, and California cornucopia, with a strong French sensibility gleaned from the likes of Michel and Pierre Troisgros and seasoned with top-flight localized experience at Aqua, Elka, and Rubicon. The result is a menu rich with California's matchless flora and fauna, prepared and served with a classically Gallic respect for texture, balance, and fresh, fresh flavors.

The duck confit is a modern-classic example of the restaurant's culinary wit. Here the silky, tender, cholesterol-rich duck meat is paired with the sort of sweet, musky peaches you can't find at your corner grocery; with its drizzle of bright, pungent balsamic vinegar reduction and a crunchy applique of sweetly toasted pistachios, this dish satisfies the classic definition of an appetizer: It primes the taste buds and offers a tantalizing glimpse of pleasures yet to come.

Predictable old seared ahi -- the crème brûlée of appetizers -- is anything but rudimentary here, served as it is with chives, tatsoi, shiitake mushrooms, a tiny spoonful of caviar, and slices of tooth-tender ginger to complement the tuna's supple, simple nature, with a mold of transcendentally good, sesame seed-encrusted sticky rice on the side. And if you're in the mood for a salad, Jardinière offers a decidedly elaborate example: sweet, almost creamy lobster meat served chilled atop slivers of fragrant sharlyn melon, fresh fennel, and sweet-to-bursting tomatoes, the whole dressed with a slightly minty Thai vinaigrette.

If this is all sounding too culinarily precious for comfort, sink your canines into the roasted pork chop, Jardinière's down-home triumph of an entree. The chop -- thick, juicy, and edged with hints of marinating wine and fruit -- is surrounded and enhanced by its traditional platemates, braised greens (Swiss chard in this case) and black-eyed peas, and it's stellar support they offer. The peas, tender and smoky, are ribboned with onion and spice and thick, glorious chunks of applewood-smoked bacon, and the chard, resting there beneath it all, soaks up all of the platter's good juices.

The sliced Liberty duck breast is also robust in flavor, particularly the end pieces with their tempting reserves of smoky fat. Slow-cooked plum, bittersweet cipollini, delicate young ginger, and sweet baby turnips add nectareous contrasts to the meat, and a bouquet of fresh watercress contributes sparkle. On a more delicate note, the Alaskan halibut and its light, mild flavor -- it's like biting into a cloud -- is enlivened by the presence of juicy Bouchot mussels, a light and peppery tomato-based broth, and -- the crowning touch -- powerful, earthy potatoes crushed into edible form with rich dollops of olive oil. Taken together, the dish is a wide-ranging panorama of tastes and textures.

Pastry chef Chris Herrera has come up with some marvelous desserts. The panna cotta is clean, weightless, barely sweet -- a cool, correct custard bejazzed now and then with a tart plum sauce and two or three breeds of citrus zest, a paper-thin, pistachio-ribboned phyllo pastry perched atop. The crumble isn't as successful -- the (admittedly pleasantly buttery) crust is too dense and overwhelming for the minimal (and taste-free) filling of black mission fig slices and pecan meat, although the port ice cream alongside has a nice fruity undertone to it and the dish as a whole is attractively autumnal in appearance.

Better: the apple bread pudding, a light-textured, homey confection dotted with soft chunks of sweet-tart Gravenstein that's warm enough to melt the good blueberry-bechunked vanilla ice cream sharing its bowl. (It's topped off with a stick of caramelized sugar spearing three pristine blueberries.) Best and most spectacular: the platter of delectables, a dizzying assortment of truffles, petits fours, pocket-sized pastries, tiny candies, and thumb-sized cookies, all of them handmade, each a unique yet complementary triumph of imagination and realization -- much like the restaurant that nurtured it.

Oh yeah: terrific service to boot.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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